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June 25, 2007

Uber-Embodiment: Faith Wilding's comments

Response to Irina’s first post re Uber-Embodiment

Dear Irina: I found your thoughts and questions to be of great interest to me at this moment—especially since I’ve been thinking so much about the two big Feminist Art exhibitions in the US this year: WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (MOCA, LA) and Global Feminisms (The Brooklyn Museum). Many people have remarked that both shows are “body” shows. The cover for the WACK! catalog—a 1970’s Martha Rosler collage made of cutouts of naked women from Playboy magazine--is extremely explicit in its reference to the representations of women’s bodies (in the 70s) that were found to be offensive to the then blossoming women’s liberation movement and concurrent Feminist Art movement. The 2nd wave women’s liberation and feminist art movements in the US were fueled by themes of female sexual and reproductive liberation: the Pill, “free love”, female orgasm, sexual and reproductive choice, feminist health movement and right to abortion and contraception, rape counseling centers, domestic violence, racist sexual violence, activism against representations of violence against women in pop culture, and the like. Many of these themes became the content of the performances, environments, videos, photoworks, collages, paintings, writings, and actions by feminist artists in the US, in Eastern and Western Europe, and in a few other countries like Japan, Australia, Canada. While many of these works were fueled by rage and were strongly critical of the cultural, religious, and political representations of sexualized and victimized women’s bodies, they often depicted young, beautiful, white, naked females (usually the artists themselves) thus raising the questions asked by some of the Marxist British feminists like Mary Kelly and Griselda Pollock et al: whether the explicit representation of nude female bodies wasn’t directly contradicting the “message” and criticality of the works. After all, we’ve been culturally trained to regard nude, white, young female bodies as sexually desirable and titillating—and combining nudity with violence is often even more exciting. Such works need a strong critical/historical contextualization though this still may not prevent many people from getting secret kicks from the work. This contextualization is not provided in the WACK! show, and though I have not seen it yet, is not present in the Global Feminisms show either. Both WACK! and Global Feminisms have quite a few European (both east and west) artists in them. So this is just as a sort of little historical note to your panel discussion.

1. In performance art the showing of the naked “body” is over valued and over validated, no question about it. And often the notion of “body” is concomitant with “naked” and even with “naked woman.” My performance students invariably wrestle with this taken-for-granted trope that performance artists have to take their clothes off because this shows the “real” body, and makes a “risky” statement. When confronted with a live naked body in a room full of clothed ones almost everyone cringes and that body becomes something else too—it becomes one’s own greatest fear perhaps, the fear of exposure and vulnerability. But one also begins to critique that body, to regard its aesthetics since this is what is offered as the “art work.” When Marina Abramovic and Ulay made people squeeze between a narrow passage created by their naked bodies they forced a “touch” on viewers rather than a “gaze.” Such direct confrontational work where the viewer becomes a body-with-bodies seems much more productive than gazing at someone (Marina again) hurting herself deliberately. It is interesting to contemplate Stelarc’s work in terms of his nakedness in the work. Stelarc does not, and has never had (sorry Stelarc) a heroic or classically molded male body. He is short, hairy, stocky. He speaks of his body as “the body”, as the obsolete body—yet he always shows it to us as fully as possible only wearing perhaps a tiny jockstrap (which I myself find very distracting, he should let it all hang out already). His body does become heroic when connected to the various machines and robotic extensions that he’s invented. This connection is sexy in certain ways, provocative in its monstrous graftings (as Donna Haraway might describe it). Stelarc’s body is always a body in action though, even in the suspension performances he has to act in order to keep a balance and a tension going so his skin doesn’t tear. He is a little like I imagine the naked athletes (both male and female) of Sparta were, completely attentive and imbued with their actions so the body really does become a tool. Some dancers use the naked body this way also (how can we tell the dancer from the dance?), and that works for me in a different way than most naked female body performances. Seems like quite a bit of the new biotech art also uses various prosthetics along with the body. The machine body is also beloved of cyberfeminists who are trying out Haraway’s notion that they’d rather be cyborgs than goddesses. Orlan is of course another example of using her actual body in embodied real performance where the audience has to watch an operation going on. Much of the cyborgian media art made by cyberfeminists now is seen only as video and not as “live art.” This makes a big difference I think in that it removes the “real” body and distances us from it. I did see a performance by Annemarie Schleiner at the Cyberfem show in Castellon, Spain, last year, in which she and another woman wore VR headgear and rollerskated through the city (in very tiny black shorts and tops) photographing and projecting the spaces they moved through with their headgear. It was fun to watch and certainly did provide this image of the female body with sexy machinic extensions. Not sure though whether it was in any way an extension of ways of thinking about the female body.

2. Another woman artist in that same show however made a very interesting work about other female bodies in the city—that is, of trafficked women from both Romania and Northern Africa, who ply their trade in the orange groves surrounding Castellon. Anna’s project did not show the women themselves, but rather mapped the routes of exchange and networks of capital and human flows that fuel this trade in bodies. One of the interesting things about these trafficked, illegal, migrant bodies is that they are usually unseen even though they move amongst us constantly. Often they do remain hidden literally imprisoned in various ways, but they are constantly moving and we are not seeing them (perhaps because they are not naked?). Yet they live in the titillated imaginary as “globalized women” as bodies of terror and hysteria. There’s a kind of unhealthy obsession here—many people want to “see” these women who are imagined as extremely sexual and victimized. In regard especially to the nude performance work of younger women from Eastern European countries I wonder if this can be understood in quite classic terms of the exchange of sex for power. Mira Schor has written about how students often offer their bodies and their sexualities to their powerful teachers because they have nothing else to give. (Sort of like Leda and the Swan—she exchanges her sexual body for his knowledge and power). Tanya Ostojevic’s work made that very literal when she offered her naked body on the internet in exchange for marriage with a Western male. (Andrea Fraser offered a night of sex with herself to any collector who would pay $10,000 and showed her toned, naked body to all viewers who came to her performance when she made the offer). Women’s bodies have always been a medium of exchange—just as cows have. Women are chattel (very similar to cattle). The value of the woman’s body is her sexuality and reproductive powers. Do women and women artists still feel that they have nothing else to exchange but their naked bodies (their sexuality)? Even if they are smart and accomplished they have to show cleavage and wear short skirts. One realizes this very quickly as one becomes older in the US. No longer can one trade on one’s looks and sexuality. And let’s consider also what bodies are usually shown—it is rarely that we see naked middle-aged, old, weak, sick, ordinary bodies. We see bodies of terror all the time which are also shown as almost a kind of pornography: starving bodies in the Sahel, exploded and dumped bodies in Iraq and Palestine, captured bodies from the borders of Mexico, martyred bodies from the inner city gang wars, etc.

3. I had some thoughts about the loss of the “natural” body and its connection to wanting to “see” naked bodies. As John Berger says, seeing the naked body of the beloved is reassuring, is the only thing that can actually measure up to our desire for the beloved. (I’m probably botching up what he says much more eloquently). But it strikes me that the naked body has often been used that way in performance and art and theatre—to reassure people, to bring them closer. I am thinking of some of the performances of the Living Theatre who got crowds everywhere to take off their clothes and mix and mingle joyfully. In the 60s nakedness was a political statement almost, a declaration of “freedom” and of a certain kind of resistance to religious and family values (these were mostly the sons and daughters of well-off or middle-class white folks). No wonder Blake with his advocacy of the human naked body divine was one of the most popular subjects for PhD dissertations in the late 60’s. The loss of the “natural” body is also perhaps partly at the root of current obsessions about eating organic and local foods, foods one has touched, foods from the real, grass-fed bodies of animals and chickens and plants. There is also the obsession with obesity, with fat as some kind of almost mystical substance. This is in contradiction to the Christian and religious right’s obsession with abstinence, fasting, homosexuality, childmolestation, etc.

4. I am curious to hear more about your thoughts on the body as medium AND message.

June 22, 2007


Thinking about this panel I conceptualized for Media Art Forum (Moscow, June 28):

Panel Discussion: “Super-Embodiment of Woman-Artist in Media Art”

Question of Embodiment and in particular – Nudity and the Nude – have become key issues in contemporary art, theory and politics. Women artists face what Foucault called ‘hysteriarization of female body’, while men artists face an issue of ‘absent male body’ (Kelly Oliver) and respond to it with various strategies. One might argue that both Western and Eastern European women artists have exhibited ‘too much body’, and to a certain extent find it difficult to leave “body” behind. However, we rarely discuss what impact socialist gender policies and practices
have had on this process within aesthetics. If performance art leaves us with legacy of ‘too much body’ - ‘super-embodiment’, - one wonders of it morphs into (new) media art as question of ‘machine’ / ‘cyborg’ embodiment and its identity. Media art by Boryana Dragoeva Rossa
(Bulgaria), Erika Katalina Pasztor (Hungary), and Elena Kovylina (Germany / Russia) will serve as case studies, alternative to and through ‘super-embodiment’ in contemporary art.
Participants: Nina Czegledy, Anne Nigten, Angela Plohman, Irina Aristarkhova, Olga Shishko, and Elena Kovylina.

Some thoughts:

1. "Body" from performance art into media art (like video) and new media (like Stelarc or SubRosa). It does not seem accidental that some of the more successful new media artists and art groups (apart from net-art), come from performance art tradition.

2. Coupling with 20th century European conceptual obsession with the 'body', 'embodiment', etc., to deconstruct the subject, it leads us to 'cyborg body' or 'technological body' concerns, clearly present in bio-art.

3. Remebering that this is a specifically Western history: Christian + capitalist history, it would be interesting to explore what Ryklin called "bodies of terror" within Soviet past, and wheather gender, sexual difference and Soviet past contributed to our media art and new media art aesthetics.

Some problems:

1. A certain unexplored identification of 'nudity' with 'freedom'. Not so much as a problem of 'impossibility of freedom', but still as some kind of belief in 'representation' and its power.

2. Medium is the body, still, and not the message. We declare more than we can.

3. Interesting unpacking through this of Western aesthetics as romantic tradition of human form (in Kantian / Hegelian formulation) - and that which makes / frames it: post-human, animal, machine, monster, God, and so on.

4. Thus, 'too much body'...

June 18, 2007


Dear Hyla,

Thanks for helping to set it up. I'll be adding a few things in the next couple of days, so join in! I hope Faith will be able to participate too.